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Goal-setting Conversation Guide

Key result areas... objectives… key performance indicators… metrics... Hardly words to make us want to leap out of bed in the morning. But although the language is clunky, it reflects important truths. Goal-setting conversations are “key” for a simple reason: the journey has to begin with a clear aim.

Goal setting Conversation Guide

Key result areas… objectives… key performance indicators… metrics… Hardly words to make us want to leap out of bed in the morning. But although the language is clunky, it reflects important truths. Goal-setting conversations are “key” for a simple reason: the journey has to begin with a clear aim.

Giving each of your people a well-defined direction is just one of the benefits, however. Other reasons why clear goals are such a crucial investment of your time as a people leader include that they:

  • Give people a vital sense of purpose.
  • Help each team member to take full responsibility for their own targets.
  • Save time on course corrections down the line.
  • Ensure outcomes can be reviewed objectively and fairly against original expectations.
  • Build stronger collaboration when goals are team-based.

What are goals?

Typically, each person’s role includes a number of routine activities that keep everything ticking over, their “day job”. These are usually a baseline expectation. Over and above those activities, however, most roles also have specific goals or core priorities to aim for. These or core priorities help the organization to build on its current performance.

How do I lead the conversation?

Jointly with your team member, work through each of the following steps

  • Identify three to five core priorities
    Help each person to identify their three to five core priorities. These are just the ball-park areas of performance or main headings at this stage. The number is important as too many can quickly become confusing and make it harder to put actions in order of importance. So, for example, a retail assistant may have Sales+Customer Service+Stock+Team. Similarly, an attorney may have Revenue Growth+Client Delivery+Leadership+Risk Management. You yourself may have Team+Production+Budget+Safety, or any other mix.
  • For each priority, identify the outcome(s) expected
    Next, clarify the more detailed “output”, the target for each core priority. This usually falls into one of six main buckets (although can be more than one in some instances):

While these six types of outcome are the most common at team member level, this list is not exhaustive. Targets such as maintaining wellbeing, increasing diversity, and achieving sustainability are all key to the way that companies work.

Three tips for setting outcomes

  • As you explore each aim, help your team member to identify the differences between “below expectation,” “meets expectation,” and “smashing-it-out-of-the-park.” This can take a bit of time and thought, but it’s worth it for two reasons: It avoids disagreements later, especially at compensation time, and it means that performance results are measured objectively.
  • In the same way, clarify together how precise each outcome needs to be. Depending on what’s required with each goal, there may be no flexibility whatsoever, some flexibility, or — as is often the case with learning and innovation outcomes — freedom to “do your best”.
  • Don’t worry if it’s hard to pinpoint the exact aim if you’re working in a fast-moving environment. Simply set the goal based on current needs and explore any changes together as they happen.

Set timelines and milestones

Where there’s a deadline to hit, talk through together what this is and why it’s necessary. It might be based on how frequently something needs to be done, such as once a month or every quarter. With other goals it may be a cut-off date. Working backwards from that date, jointly put into place interim milestones to help track progress. This will need to avoid falling into ‘micro-managing’, and instead provide helpful opportunities for your team member to manage risk and incorporate any adjustments needed.

Watch out for pitfalls

Pitfalls to avoid include that:

  • Too much pressure can lead people to become stressed.
  • Short-term targets can lead to short-term thinking.
  • Rewards can incentivize the wrong behavior.
  • Unrealistic goals can lead people to act unethically or illegally.

Identify the resources

For each outcome, discuss what support or skills they will need. The more they are equipped and ready, especially in areas of stretch, the more motivated they’re likely to feel. Resources may include:

  • Information
  • Time Skills and know-how of colleagues
  • Budget
  • Levels of authority and decision-making
  • Support from you/others
  • Advice
    Introductions to key influencers
  • Coaching and/or skills training
    Access to expertise and knowledge
  • Limits or boundaries
  • Other?

Risk management

Being clear-eyed in advance about potential risks helps to give both you and your team member added peace of mind. Here are three useful ways to be smart at the start:

  • Set boundaries Talk through together any important limits such as time or resource constraints, or where your team member can take their own decisions and where they should escalate an issue to you. This gives them the freedom to operate within those limits and can also help to prevent a bureaucratic log-jam while something waits unnecessarily for your attention.
  • Conduct a “pre-mortem” A pre-mortem is a way to predict potential pitfalls before they happen. This technique can often encourage your team member to speak out without being afraid of sounding negative. A useful question to ask is, “If we imagine ourselves in 12 months’ time looking back on this goal and it has gone wrong, what might be some of the reasons?”
  • Identify where there is room for smart risks Talk through how much “wiggle room” people have for experimentation and what failures are acceptable. This encourages them to think of new ideas and increases their sense of involvement.

Summarizing the conversation

How you end the discussion often leaves a strong impression. A great way to do this is to:

  • Thank your team member for their contribution.
  • Check that the conversation has covered everything they need in order to take full ownership.
  • Schedule your first progress update meeting together in your calendars.
  • Close with a positive comment about the year ahead.

Final thought

Each job has its own rhythms, but as the military saying goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Things can and will change, and it will be essential to keep goals updated. You can do this at any time through revisions and feedback, but your best safety net is to include a quick check that goals are still the right ones as a routine agenda item in your regular progress updates.


Goal-Setting Conversation Guide for managers
Goal-Setting Conversation guide for team members
For more help see Now You’re Talking!
The manager’s complete handbook to leading great conversations at work – even the tough ones
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